Is Awakening truly rare, or does the belief that it is hinder Realization?
Is spiritual Awakening or Enlightenment rare? Ask many different awakened beings and you’ll likely get a variety of conflicting answers.
Some spiritual teachers say it’s exceedingly rare. Others offer increasingly specific mystical claims.
Meher Baba, an Indian spiritual guru who never spoke, but dictated spiritual truths via alphabet boards and hand gestures for over forty four years related that there are 56 incarnate God-realized souls on earth at any given time, only five of which are the perfect Masters of their era. According to Baba, when one of the five Perfect Masters dies, another God-realized soul immediately replaces him or her.
Traditions like Buddhism generally suggest that Enlightenment takes a long time; several decades if you’re lucky, many lifetimes if you’re not.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna informs Arjuna:
“To know God via direct experience is extremely rare. Enlightenment occurs to less than one person in more than ten million people.”
– David Hawkins, Eye of the I
“Out of many thousands among men, one may endeavor for perfection, and of those who have achieved perfection, hardly one knows Me in truth.” – Bhagavad Gita 7.3
In contrast, many modern popular neo-Advaita teachers cut out what they perceive as spiritual fluff and offer a quick, direct teaching : “You’re already awake, there is nothing to do, nothing to attain, nothing to realize, no path to walk. The very striving is itself the block. Enlightenment is available here and now, so long as you meet the basic criteria: being aware!”
In the interview below, spiritual teacher Adyashanti shares that he’s personally encountered hundreds of awakened beings.
So who’s right and who’s wrong? As with most things, it’s not really that simple…
What is Awakening?
What is Awakening?
The first problem in trying to arrive at an answer about the rarity of awakening lies in defining exactly what it is.
Everyone from Buddhist monks, to Hindu sadhus and yogis, to nondual guides, to neo-Advaita satsangers, to new age bloggers, to motivational speakers, to Instagram influencers uses the term awakening these days – but are they referring to the same thing?
In my estimation, no, and the lack of a standardized definition is certainly one of the main causes of contradictory opinions about the rarity of awakening/enlightenment.
While an in-depth comparative study of spiritual traditions may uncover subtle linguistic/conceptual differences or spark heated debates among scholars, generally, the traditions define “Enlightenment” as the ultimate culmination of the spiritual journey—a culmination that is distinguished by a rather stringent set of criteria.
- The destruction of all karmic tendencies* born of ignorance.
- The end of suffering
- (and in some cases, said more explicitly than in others) Bliss that transcends dualistic emotions and states
*My favorite framework for spelling this out is the Theravada Buddhist Four Stages of Awakening model.
By contrast, the modern spiritual community generally tends to use the word awakening much more liberally; referring to a spiritual experience that has profoundly shifted one’s perspective and sense of identity—the culmination of which is a desire to start a spiritual coaching business or go on online forums and respond to every spiritual question with the copy/pasted answer of “there is no-self.”
In short, the modern usage of Awakening mostly refers to a spiritual experience accompanied by perspective shifting wisdom, whereas Enlightenment usually refers to the fully lived/actualized/integrated implications of that experience/perspective.
While this is a bit of a departure from traditional usage (Awakened is a better translation of the word Bodhi than Enlightenment, a translation popularized after the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries), for brevity’s sake I’ll use Enlightenment in reference to the more traditional, stringent understandings, and Awakening/Awakened in reference the more lax, modern understanding for the remainder of this article.
Awakening is common,
Awakening is common,
Enlightenment is rare.
Enlightenment is rare.
Why do you care?
Why do you care?
With Awakening and Enlightenment defined (at least for the purpose of this article), the easiest way to resolve the contradictory opinions about the rarity of spiritual realization is to say that Awakening is common (relatively), whereas Enlightenment is rare.
Awakening is the doorway experience; Enlightenment is for those wise and brave enough to thirst for the absolute Truth of that experience/realization and live out its implications fully.
But how rare and how common?
Who cares? No, seriously…
Beyond that acknowledgment, there’s little to no value in trying to quantify the rarity of Enlightenment (i.e., 1/1000 or 1 in 10 million or 5 every 2000 years, etc.). Further literal engagement with the question and any attempted answers are more of a distraction than an aid to spiritual Realization.
So now that I’ve answered your question, albeit perhaps unsatisfactorily, I invite you to consider mine.
Why do you care?
Why are you interested/invested in the rarity of Awakening or Enlightenment?
What are you looking for in an answer to the question?
In my experience, interest in this question usually signifies 3 things
- doubts/limiting beliefs about feasibility
- fears about sacrifices
- the desire to be spiritually special
Question your questions. These are all ARE worth inquiring into if you’re at all interested in Awakening/Enlightenment.
1) Doubts & Limiting Beliefs
1) Doubts & Limiting Beliefs
“Rare is it to be born a human; rarer still is it to have heard of Enlightenment; and most rare is it to pursue Enlightenment” – The Buddha
A lot of people interested in spirituality ask, “Is awakening rare?” because what they really want to know is, “Is it worth my time and effort, do I have a chance?”
This question likely arises because somewhere along the spiritual path they developed the impression that awakening is exceedingly, if not supernaturally rare, even amongst serious spiritual practitioners. They think you have to have had some mystical spiritual experience as a child or teenager to even qualify for awakening.
This notion seems to be most prominent in Buddhist circles (but also in some Yogic and Hindu traditions), and it’s often accompanied by statements and assumptions regarding time frames and necessary preparatory steps for awakening such as:
- You have to meditate for x amount of years or hours before certain insights or attainments are possible.
- Awakening is a multi-lifetime pursuit, rare people awaken in a lifetime.
Obviously, if you’re interested in spirituality this news can seem rather disheartening. The suggested unlikelihood of awakening is often understandably met with discouragement; an attitude of “then why should I even bother?”
But it shouldn’t be.
If you’ve made it this far in the article, you already have the one thing that is perhaps the biggest thing karmically beyond your control: the aptitude for and interest in awakening. You can’t manufacture openness if your heart is totally closed or your mind is obsessed with other pursuits. It’s grace to even be open to the teachings.
Supposing that awakening is a mult-lifetime pursuit, do you know what life you’re on?
Who’s to say that your interest itself doesn’t indicate past life sadhana or merit?
Don’t assume that the lack of a mind-boggling past life experience means that you aren’t without merit.
Watch out for limiting beliefs and concepts in this area.
The first point, suggesting the need for quantifiable hours or decades of meditation time, is also problematic.
For one, if your theory of awakening or enlightenment references past life merit, then time spent in meditation or spiritual practice in this life is incredibly insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Why even attempt to quantify necessary practice time in this lifetime if the timeline involves many others?
The bigger issue with the suggestion of necessary practice time, however, is that it attempts to reduce awakening to a mechanical, linear path. It’s not.
Hours of meditation aren’t what’s necessary; insight and letting go are. While the former may enable the latter to some extent, the correlation is far from perfect.
Some people awaken after years of dedicated, formal meditation practice, but others like Eckhart Tolle or Ramana Maharshi awakened spontaneously after inquiring directly into the nature of death and impermanence.
While these instances may be rare, that doesn’t mean that everyone who doesn’t fall into the spontaneous awakening category requires the opposite: decades of meditation for three hours per day. There is an entire spectrum of practice hours and spiritual study time in between spontaneous awakening and decades that it may take to awaken.
While it is not certain where you or anyone else falls on that spectrum, it is certain that unnecessary, discouraging beliefs will prolong the process.
Can you adopt a beginner’s mind and just say, “I don’t know” when it comes to the timeframe or likelihood of Awakening? That is more truthful and freeing than anything else.
2) Fears About Sacrifices
2) Fears About Sacrifices
Truth is One, Paths are Many
For many, the word awakening comes with burdensome connotations of things that must be rejected (family, money, sex, non-vegetarian food, etc.) or things that must be done (practice this form of kundalini yoga in the morning, this form of pranayama in the afternoon, and this mantra in the evening, etc.).
Discussing the individual merits or contexts for each of these suggestions is beyond the scope of this article, but outside of inquiry and surrender, nothing can be said to be absolutely necessary for Enlightenment.
The elevation of certain contextual suggestions into dogmatic necessities is another thing that tends to add to the discouraging mystique of Enlightenment and make it seem reserved for the select, chosen few.
In reality, the Truth is one, but the paths are many. The farther that you get from the absolute Truth of nonduality and oneness, the more you get into partial truths; things that may or may not be useful in a given situation or context for a certain person.
Viewing spirituality not as a set of rituals and practices, but as a complete lifestyle and applying those spiritual truths to whatever your most natural, authentic life is the path. Your quickest path to awakening may not be dropping whatever life you’re living and becoming a full-time monk. Maybe your spiritual lessons are better learned in a rehearsal space or relationship than in an ashram. Who knows?
The quickest path is your own, not someone else’s. Experiment with letting go and taste the results. Let go of what screams to be let go of. Don’t overindulge the senses, but don’t renounce something because you think you have to.
3) The Desire for Spiritual Specialness
3) The Desire for Spiritual Specialness
In exploring the first two concerns often lurking behind the “Is Awakening/Enlightenment rare?” question, I addressed the limiting beliefs that can often demoralize people from earnestly engaging in spirituality; preventing them from having a more possible than they might imagine awakening.
Yet not everyone who experiences the profound shifts in consciousness of an awakening goes on to “attain” Enlightenment.
One reason for that is another question that often masquerades underneath the interest in the rarity of Enlightenment:
“If I awaken, does that mean that I am now one of the exalted few? The chosen, the special?”
People who haven’t yet awakened usually want it to be common and achievable. Yet sometimes people who have want it to be rare and exotic.
They want to know how rare it is because its rareness would mean something about their specialness. It would give them some type of authority, some type of exalted status. Being one of the enlightened few may give them fame or recognition or permission to charge $3000 for a private healing session or to collect a harem of devotees for a “sexual awakening.” They’ve heard fanciful stories. They have expectations and fantasies that awakening will offer them unique spiritual powers or the lifestyle of their favorite guru.
In the context of the traditions that have stringent standards regarding the specific delusions and attachments that drop with Enlightenment, this tendency is well understood. In the Buddhist 4 Stages model, conceit and ignorance are later fetters on the path, not something that immediately drops after awakening. More humorously, Zen refers to this pattern as the Stink of Enlightenment.
But in a larger context, the tendency of a new, special “I’m an awakened being” identity to emerge after an awakening experience is just one of many vasanas, or karmic tendencies, that often still exist after awakening. In this instance, the interest in the rarity of enlightenment likely just points to one manifestation of the many ways in which the ego relates to others and plays out an inferiority/superiority narrative with them.
Awakening pierces the separate, egoic identity and reveals something about the nature of the mind and awareness in a profound way. Yet an awakening experience is usually not enough to remove the numerous patterns of fear/desire and separateness that existed prior to it. These patterns have a certain momentum, even if that momentum is temporarily paused in the wonder or clarity of an awakening.
Of those that awaken, few seem to fully address the vasanas and that obscure Enlightenment. This is obvious both in the modern teachings that reduce spirituality to nothing other than a word salad of negation, and in the conduct of some well-known spiritual “masters”. A glimpse of the Truth often gives enough wisdom to talk about it convincingly, but it doesn’t give purity.
For the truly thirsty seekers of Truth this humbling acknowledgement needn’t be discouraging; it can be empowering. Understanding why Enlightenment is rare can illuminate the path– if you’re willing to walk it.
If you truly want Truth, release, liberation, you should want to know all the sticking points, all the places that other minds get fixated and lost; all of the delusions that exist, even after awakening.
Krishna told Arjuna the Truth on the battlefield. While comfortable insights may be enough for an Awakening, Enlightenment requires a certain fearlessness beyond that.
After Awakening, the rareness of Enlightenment is just a conversation starter, an invitation to explore the many ways in which the vasanas cause the mind to still cling to the body, the sense of identity, the world, the beliefs etc…
If you thirst for Truth enough to commit yourself to inquiring into the vasanas, the rarity of Enlightenment shouldn’t matter to you. What else is there to do?
When discussing the rarity of Enlightenment, there is a fine line to walk between offering realistic acknowledgments and implanting unproductive, limiting beliefs.
The rarity of Awakening doesn’t need supernatural speculation to adorn it. Achieving clarity and peace isn’t common because culture and society are built upon many premises that reinforce the separate self that spiritually seeks to untangle. Without the necessary impetus, many people are not interested in starting that process.
While it’s true on some level that everyone wants Enlightenment whether they know it or not, on a more pragmatic level, certain people’s minds probably have too much clutter, fixation, skepticism, and counterproductive tendencies to even entertain the idea of it. They need basic self-growth or self-help before Self-Realization.
In this general sense, Awakening is rare in the same way that getting a Ph.D. or Medical Doctor degree is. In contrast to the general population, doctors are pretty rare, but they’re not rare because they are all mythical beings with superhuman IQs. Doctors are people with a particular set of temperaments, values, skills, and abilities. They’re people who, compared to the general population, may be more inclined to sacrifice work/life balance or delay gratification, but they’re not born genius saints.
Not everyone wants to become a doctor. Admission to medical school is very competitive and the training is demanding and difficult, but most people with a basic degree of interest, intelligence, dedication, and perseverance will get into medical school and become doctors if they are committed to doing so.
The same applies to Awakening. Awakening isn’t necessarily common in everyday life, but it’s not exactly rare amongst people with some degree of spiritual aptitude. The increased ability of people across varying cultures and traditions to share their experiences via the internet has made this clear.
It’s good to know that Awakening is reasonably common so that you don’t develop limiting beliefs that displace right action and inquiry. Awakening can happen after varying degrees of concentrated spiritual practice or spontaneously; there are no hard rules.
In a sense, Awakening marks the beginning of the spiritual process, not the end. One reason why Enlightenment is rarer is simply because after a profound spiritual experience, many people think they’ve made it, they’re done! Rarely, if ever, is this the case.
It’s also good to know that Enlightenment is rare so that you don’t fall for common traps or delusions, or elevate everyone who talks about non-duality to guru status. Instead, acknowledgement of rarity can encourage the practice of discernment and the letting go of all the vasanas that can cloud awakening and reaffirm egotism, separation, illusion, and suffering.
Beyond that, don’t concern yourself with the rarity of Awakening or Enlightenment.
Instead of energizing the question, inquire deeper into the questioner.
Who is concerned with the answer? What are they looking for in an answer to the question? What limiting beliefs, expectations, or fantasies do they hold regarding awakening and enlightenment? What do they think they must do, or not do, to get it? Why do they want it? What stories do they tell themselves about their worthiness?
Let go of the assumptions and hold onto what’s immediate, the pure I.
Whatever Awakening/Enlightenment is, and however rare it may or may not be, dropping rather than entertaining questions such as “Is Awakening/Enlightenment rare?” will certainly get you closer to it.
Cover Photo: Photo Dharma from Sadao, Thailand, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo (1): Rikudhar, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo (2): CC 2.0: “Amortal” by new 1lluminati at Flickr (11.17.23)